It’s Wrong To Try To Protect Students From Being Offended

By December 13, 2014

By Samantha Harris at The Des Moines Register

When artist and University of Iowa visiting professor Serhat Tanyolacar created a statue of a Ku Klux Klansman out of press clippings about the United States’ history of racism, his intent was to provoke dialogue.

Instead, when he displayed that statue on UI’s campus last week, the display led to complaints from students who found it “traumatic” and to an apology — and an offer of counseling to affected students — from UI President Sally Mason.

More and more, we are pathologizing normal feelings of outrage and offense on college campuses. We now use the vocabulary of post-traumatic stress disorder — trauma, triggers, etc. — to refer to virtually any bad feelings occasioned by controversial events or expression.

This threatens free speech and open debate on campus, and it undermines universities’ presumptive goal of producing leaders capable of taking on the many challenges facing our nation and our world.

This phenomenon has become widespread on college and university campuses. Columbia University Law School, for example, is allowing students to postpone their final exams if they “feel that their performance on examinations will be sufficiently impaired” by the grand jury decisions in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases. Interim Dean Robert Scott also informed students that the school had arranged for a “trauma specialist” to meet with students who feel affected by the decision.

This medicalization of offense and outrage is also evident in the growing demand for trigger warnings on university campuses, not only for violent content that might trigger flashbacks to past abuse, but also for any language that might cause discomfort.

Earlier this year, for example, Oberlin College posted (and then later took down) a set of trigger-warning guidelines for faculty that noted, “Triggers are not only relevant to sexual misconduct, but also to anything that might cause trauma. Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression.”

Colleges and universities should urge their students to channel feelings of outrage and offense into a resolve to use their intelligence and education to fight for justice and fairness in society. Instead, universities are all too willing to treat offended students as psychologically fragile individuals in need of special accommodations and counseling.

Given that today’s students have often been taught from early on that they have a right not to be offended, it is unsurprising, albeit sad, that so many of them demand that their universities protect them from offense.

What is surprising, given the traditional role of the university as a marketplace of ideas and a training ground for future leaders, is how readily so many universities acquiesce to these demands.

If we want future generations of Americans to be able to confront injustice in the same way as generations past, we must stop teaching our young people to run from discomfort and offense, and start teaching them how to address it head-on.

And we must demand that our universities do the same.

Schools: University of Iowa